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Transits: Gerhard Richter’s "Strontium"

October 25, 2016

“Transits” is a series that looks at the movement of art in the Fine Art Museums’ collection.

We spoke to Debra Evans, head conservator, and Victoria Binder, associate conservator, about the deinstallation of Strontium, the large-scale mural by Gerhard Richter that has been a significant feature of the de Young’s new building that opened in 2005.

Read more about the challenges of moving this massive artwork, the pressure of working against the clock, and why you shouldn’t bother asking a conservator for cleaning advice.

Strontium has hung in Wilsey Court for more than ten years. Why did it need to be moved now?
Evans: A very large Frank Stella painting Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3] (The Earthquake in Chili) was to be installed on that wall. The Richter was moved specifically to make room for the installation.

Binder: We were making room for new art to be seen, especially with our new contemporary focus. Moving Strontium was one of the first decisions our new director made.

What did you need to plan for before the process started?
Evans: The three issues were cleaning the work, protecting its fragile surface, and minimizing the amount of room it would take up in storage.

We’d cleaned the bottom parts of it frequently, the places we could reach, but we hadn't gotten to the top until just before the deinstallation. Luckily one of our conservators had just been to a symposium at the Getty where they discussed this type of photograph, so she’d come back with information about the latest, greatest materials for cleaning the fragile acrylic surface. And there are 130 panels, each measuring approximately three feet by two feet, so you can imagine that it takes up a tremendous amount of space in storage.

Associate Conservator Victoria Binder cleaning one of the 130 panels

Any specific challenges?
Evans: Working against the clock. We were given three days to do the entire project, so we had an arrangement, sort of like a factory, where one person would do one part of the cleaning, another would do the next, and then another would do the packing for the crates, all in a swift line. It was such an efficient operation between a great group of techs (those responsible for the handling the art) and conservators, so we made swift work of it.

Conservation work normally takes place behind closed doors. What reaction did you get as you worked in public?
Evans: Engagement with the public is a fun part of our job, and we really appreciate the opportunity to educate visitors. One of the questions we got most often was, “What are you using to clean that?” Conservators need to be careful with that question because we have a lot of training about applying different cleaning solutions to different materials. We would never want to recommend something and then have someone go back and use the wrong cleaning solution with their own art.

A 40-second timelapse video documenting the three-day deinstallation

Where is Strontium now?
Evans: It’s in three crates in storage here at the de Young. The crates were made to stack so that they would take up the smallest footprint in our already very crowded storage area. We're always glad when our works can stay here on site so we can look after them.

Now that the process is complete, what are your final thoughts on this project?
Binder: It was a great collaborative experience that required us all putting our heads together. It took great planning and teamwork on the part of the techs as well. It was fun spending time with them, and working in public.

Evans: It was one of the most efficient and seamless operations I’ve ever seen here. We’re really proud of that. And it’s a very different vantage point when you get on that lift and go to the very top of Wilsey Court!

Gerhard Richter, Deinstall, de Young

A unique view of Wilsey Court from the top of the lift

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